Most Common Writing Mistakes: Is Your First-Person Narrator Overpowering Your Story?

Stories told by a first-person narrator (i.e., “I went to school today” vs. the third-person narrator “she went to school today”) are increasingly popular these days, particularly in YA fiction. But this is often a narrative perspective that’s tricky to get right. The first-person narrator, more than any other type of narrator, is inclined to lapse into self-centered telling, in which he overpowers the story, at the expense of the other characters and even the plot itself. Let’s take a look at some of the common pitfalls and how to avoid them.

Beginning every sentence with “I.”

The first-person narrator tempts writers into focusing on the narrating character to the exclusion of other subjective nouns. The result is a stultifying string of sentences that all feature the same subject. Mix and match subjects to electrify some life into your syntax.

Wrong: I fled down the stairs, heart pounding. I could hear the zombified giant clomping after me. Ahead, I could see the cellar door offering me the chance to escape and hide. I reached the door, wrenched it open, and dove inside.

Right: My heart pounded as I fled down the stairs. Behind me, the zombified giant clomped after me. Five feet ahead, the cellar door offered the chance to escape and hide. I reached the door, wrenched it open, and dove inside.

Telling thoughts instead of showing.

In the first-person narrative, everything you write is straight out of the main character’s brain. You don’t need to clarify the character’s thoughts by placing them in italics or qualifying them with an “I thought” tag.

Wrong: I couldn’t believe this was happening. Zombified giants don’t really exist, do they? I thought to myself. Maybe I’m dreaming.

Right: This couldn’t be happening. Zombified giants didn’t really exist, did they? Maybe I was dreaming.

Inserting lengthy narrative at the expense of action and dialogue.

First-person narration offers the temptation to share with readers everything the character is thinking. But beware of lengthy narrative rabbit trails when you should be allowing action and dialogue to carry the story.

Wrong: “What’s up with you lately?” Kirsten asked.I heaved a sigh. Kirsten had no idea how insane my life had become. She had no idea that zombified giants—huge and ugly and stinky—were after me. [Insert lengthy description of zombified giants, narrator’s life, history of friendship with Kirsten, etc.]

Right: “What’s up with you lately?” Kirsten asked.I heaved a sigh. “You have no idea how insane my life has become.” I threw my backpack into my locker, shot a surreptitious glance up and down the hallway, then leaned forward to whisper in her ear, “Zombies! Big ones!” [Insert witty, conflict-ridden dialogue that conveys the important information about zombified giants, narrator’s life, history of friendship with Kirsten, etc.]

Utilizing a first-person narrator can be an exciting way to create an immediate and intimate story readers won’t be able to turn away from. Make sure you aren’t stumbling over these common mistakes, and you’ll be more than ready to knock readers (and maybe some zombified giants as well) off their feet with your powerful narrative.

Tell me your opinion: Do you prefer writing in first-person or third-person?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. I am seeing a new mistake that beginning writers are making in the Wattpad.com writing site and even in Amazon. This is taken from the “Introduction” chapter of a new writer that has asked me to look at their book:

    Just a few things to help while reading.

    Certain images will appear at points in the story
    to show a change in time line or place or POV

    A row of XxxxxxxX = time line or location.

    A row of = (magnafying glasses)change of POV + Location.

    A row of (paper icons)= POV.

    I did this while proof reading for plot and spelling
    I got just a little lost. I hope this helps.
    Made it a little easier for myself.

    If you have a better idea after reading.
    Let me know.
    As always enjoy

    I’m trying to explain to him that this isn’t making things different in a good way, but that he is telling not showing and needs to work these things into his prose. So if you get the chance please add this problem to this page. Here is a screen shot of the chapter:

    http://oi64.tinypic.com/110iypz.jpg

    Yiii! this is the wrong way to try and make a story different. In my option it just makers them as a complete newbie.

  2. Dang it still has typos, sorry about that: *This, *makes

  3. No wait, not makes: marks.

  4. A beta reader referred me to this column because she doesn’t like my use of italics for interior thoughts. I’m writing in first person POV because my protagonist lives in her head, is self-centered, lies often, and seldom says what she really thinks.

    For an example using Leave It to Beaver character Eddie Haskell’s POV:

    “Gee that is a nice dress you have on, Mrs. Cleaver.” [i]It looks like the drapes my mother threw out. [/i]

    “Why thank you, Eddie,” said Mrs. Cleaver. “It was nice of you to notice.”

    To me, rewriting internal dialog interspersed with dialog into past tense like the narrative takes you out of the moment. What do you recommend for internal dialog that happens during conversations?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I gotta back up your beta reader on this one. When you’re creating a deep narrative in which every single word is essentially being told by the narrating character, there’s no reason to pull readers out of their intimate narrative to point out which thoughts are *really* that character’s thoughts. It’s actually much more disruptive to interrupt the past-tense narrative with present-tense thoughts, rather than the other way around.

  5. What about if your first person narration is supposed to be the main character telling a story of what happened to him when he was younger?

    “I must have drifted off to sleep after that because the next thing I rememebered was waking up in a sweat at 2am. I had been having another dream about the man in black. This time I was in my own bedroom. He was just standing in the corner staring at me again. I was on my bed terrified. ”

    I know that doesn’t sound very good. I see what you mean about too many I’s. But this is him telling his story, so don’t I have to use I a lot?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This approach is tricky (although doable), since you have to basically create a framing device that uses the older narrator only occasionally, but still allows the story to be told in a more immediate tense (dropping all those extra hads and haves for the most part). Honestly, my first instinct would be to either drop the “future self” narrator or use him only as a brief frame in a prologue and epilogue. The big pitfall is that his presence risks distancing readers too much from the immediacy of the main narrative.

      • This reminds me of “The Catcher in the Rye” (have you read it yet?) in which the first person narrator partially describes his predicament, says, “Now let me tell you about my story…” then doesn’t return to the present “and here I am…” until the last couple pages.

        It’s how he jumped from the end of the story to the epilogue that still has me wondering why after 60 years I can’t find anyone else who shares my interpretation.

  6. I think I write better in first person as I need the emotion to come across and find it easier that way…but I have other characters in my story that I would like to be independent from the main so what would I use for them :/ please help I’m very new at this

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I recommend practicing writing in various POVs. It’s a great exercise to stretch your skills and teach to explore different characters’ voices. If it helps, you can think of deep third-person as basically first-person–just with different pronouns.

  7. I am extremely conflicted. I have been researching differences between first person and third person limited, trying to figure out which narrative is going to be able to convey my characters thoughts, feelings and experiences in the moment.
    As the writer and creator of these characters I already know what they’re thinking, feeling, and experiencing in the moment, in flashbacks, etc. and it’s important to story that I am able to intimately convey to my readers not just one character’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences- their past, their present, etc. but that of two characters, as they are both equally essential.
    I’ve read books where sections are separated by a character’s name instead of a ‘chapter’ heading, letting the reader know who’s POV we’re now reading from. I’ve also read books where a scene is told from one POV, only to later be retold by another POV, revealing things unknown by the first POV, deepening the story.
    When watching a scene in a film with two characters, the viewer knows what’s happening with both characters simultaneously thanks to facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, etc.; the viewer receives all of this information at once. I can visualize these scenes in my mind, and again, because I’m writing them, I already know what the characters are feeling, thinking, and experiencing, but I need to be able to successfully and fluidly translate both POVs, so that the reader can connect to both. Writing from first person allows the writer to become that person just as playing a role in a production, and I’m basically trying to play two roles. It is imperative the reader feel both characters; without both the translation is lost. But at the same time, writing from third person limited is more natural for me and also allows me to write about supporting and minor characters. Though, I suppose I can still write about other characters in first person, but from said person’s POV. However, the reader doesn’t know if what they’re reading is an opinion or fact. There must be a way to seamlessly execute first person AND third person limited together. I apologize for the article, as you may have noticed, I am quite overwhelmed. :/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There is. 🙂 The traditional of intermingling first- and third-person POVs goes all the way back to Charles Dickens’s Bleak House.

  8. Brian Nielsen says:

    I really enjoy writing in first person. This perspective allows me to release or enhance emotion in many ways and proves to be a clean re readable product. Often frustration overcomes my love for creating on paper hence why I arrived at this beautiful explanation of first person narrative writing which has cleared up quite a bit of my fog. Thanks.
    -infinite peace, love and balance.
    – a free bird

  9. darkocean says:

    Any tips on helping a fellow writer get that their characters narrative is way to long (in most chapters the characters thoughts take up at least half.) She keeps expling it away that she has a reason for this in that she wants readers to understand how her characters feel. Personality, I feel it could be condensed and have the characters show more. Any thoughts on this?

  10. Beginner Novelist says:

    I prefer to write in 3rd person for some scenes that have a lot of action in them and 1st person for ‘deep’ scenes I guess you’d say. I’m kind of in the middle and at war with my inner editor over writing in 3rd person vs 1st in my novel. Both sound pretty good but 1st person sounds better a lot of the time, so I think that’s what I’ll go with. Hope it all goes well…

    • Lynda Nash says:

      I don’t think it’s what sounds best 1st or 3rd but who you narrator is – is it you the author or is it an omniscient narrator with their own personality or is it a character and how close to them do you want to get? Suss out your narrator first and pov should fall into place.

  11. darkocean says:

    It finally occurred to me my writing partner is a little conceded well, maybe a lot. Even after showing her this website and a few others she has fallen in the defensive response of saying that it’s her style and that all writing advice is wrong for her book. Sounds fair enough right? Well, there’s I, me, and such everywhere, huge blocks of backstory taht go on for chapters, and about 6 + characters that each get a chapters switching back and forth until I get whiplash. Along with the names looking alike (lots start with a K.)

    I really need a better reading/writing it then wattpad most members are very green or cant see the ‘forest’ at all. I’ve tried writing.com but the drop-down menus keep breaking or disappearing so it’s unusable. I found a site called inket.com but it is greedy and tries to make a worlds rights grab. I want an adult writing/reading site. Why are they all for teens or a scam? ;-;

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